Here it is – the post I had planned to write in the Philly airport yesterday. Better late than never, right?
I think it’s only fair that I come out right now and admit that I first learned to make macaroni and cheese from a blue box. Yep, I did it too. At the time, it was actually the only way I knew how to make mac and cheese. Yikes, right? And then I met Matt, and discovered that he often made that same infamous blue boxed stuff too, so of course we reinforced each other’s behavior.
Once I got married, my mom gave me her recipe for macaroni and cheese, which had been passed down to her from her grandmother and then her mother. First of all, it’s, oh I don’t know, just a tad better than the salty, chemical-y, powdered cheese version, and secondly, it’s pretty darn easy to make. Thus, the blue box of mac and cheese was one of the first processed foods to exit my kitchen and lifestyle.
As I have become better and more knowledgeable about cooking, I have learned that Southerners and would-be Southerners make their mac and cheese one way, while everyone else does it differently. Southerners (and my mom’s recipe comes from Louisiana, so it qualifies) make a sort of uncooked custard of milk and eggs, then they stir in cooked macaroni and grated cheese. It’s all stirred together, then poured into a greased baking dish, topped with more grated cheese and baked off. Delicious! The other kind of mac and cheese begins with a simple roux of butter and flour, then milk is simmered and thickened, then cheese is melted in. Cooked noodles are added, and then you can serve it stove-top or pour it into a baking dish, top with cheese and bake off. Also plenty delicious!
I’ve made both versions many times and I really do love them both. This recipe is of the Southern variety, but what really caught my attention about it is that it contains buttermilk, an ingredient I have never used or even thought about using in either version of macaroni and cheese. How interesting is that, though!
I first made this dish the way the recipe was written, which included bread crumbs and tomato slices baked on top. I didn’t love it. I’m not really a huge fan of bread crumbs on mac and cheese. What can I say, I simply wasn’t raised that way, so I’m not that kind of girl. But I was still so intrigued by the buttermilk element that I decided to adapt the recipe to my tastes, leave off the bread crumbs, and give it a second try. I did keep the tomatoes, only I chopped them and incorporated them into the dish.
And this time, I loved it! What I’m about to write next, some of you may find blasphemous. But hear me out before you write it off. The buttermilk made this particular mac and cheese a little lighter, tangier, and less rich. And I know some of you are thinking that the only reason to eat mac and cheese is for the decadent richness, and I hear you, I really do. But for a twist on things, try it with buttermilk at least once. It’s a really interesting final product – still quite tasty and cheesy, but not so heavy. And the buttermilk does legitimately cut some calories, so consider that silver lining!
So how do you usually make your macaroni and cheese? Which method? Any secret ingredients? And what do you think of using buttermilk?
Source: adapted from Texas Eats by Robb Walsh
1 (16-oz.) package elbow macaroni
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup half and half
1 tsp dry mustard
Kosher salt and black pepper
8 oz. Cheddar cheese, shredded
12 oz. Monterey jack cheese, shredded
1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
Preheat your oven to 350 F. Grease a 9×13-inch baking dish.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, then add the macaroni and cook according to package directions, one minute before al dente. It will finish cooking in the oven. Drain well.
While the macaroni is cooking, in a large bowl, whisk the eggs until beaten. Now whisk in the buttermilk, half and half, mustard, plus salt and pepper to taste. Continue whisking until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the drained macaroni, the tomato, and two-thirds of the shredded cheeses. Stir to combine all the ingredients. Pour the macaroni mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the pasta.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cheese is browned and bubbly. Remove from the oven and allow to set for 15 minutes before serving.